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In wealthy Mexico City area, hard workers at street level

The richest man on the planet lives in Mexico, as do millions of people existing below the poverty line. Yet rich and poor repeatedly intersect, entangled in a routine of mutual sustenance.

April 19, 2011|By Tracy Wilkinson, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Mexico City — Lomas de Chapultepec, a neighborhood of huge homes behind high stone and brick walls, wakes up each morning to the sound of sweeping.

As the dawn's dark fades to light, servants emerge from behind gates and, with witches' brooms, brush away the leaves and twigs and lavender jacaranda petals that have fallen overnight.

Maids in pastel uniforms, security guards, gardeners and chauffeurs — these are the public denizens of this super-rich enclave. The actual homeowners and permanent residents are rarely seen.

Of Mexico's many contradictions, one stands out. The richest man on the planet lives in Mexico, as do millions of people existing below the poverty line. Yet rich and poor repeatedly intersect, entangled in a routine of mutual survival, of class-based enabling.

The rich sustain their comfortable lives thanks in part to an endless supply of cheap support staff. That in turn guarantees employment — albeit substandard — for legions of working-class Mexicans.

A study issued this month by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that Mexicans work the longest days of people in any of the 30 countries studied by the global organization. Yet Mexicans remain among the developed world's poorest.

Mexicans dedicate about 10 hours a day (Mexican women work longer than men) to "paid and unpaid work." That's about an hour more on average than the Japanese; Belgians work the least, the OECD says.

David Martinez runs a food stand on a corner of a particularly lovely section of Lomas de Chapultepec. He and his father before him have been here more than 25 years.

Martinez sets up on the sidewalk under the shade of Lomas' Lebanon Street, against the bougainvillea-covered walls that conceal the houses. Next to him is the man who sells firewood out the back of a battered blue pickup, year-round.

The 33-year-old Martinez travels to Lomas, on the western edge of Mexico City, from his home on the eastern side. Two and a half hours each way: a five-hour daily commute: "It was six yesterday because of the rain," he said. His mother and sister-in-law start cooking every day at 3 a.m., and he heads for Lomas with the food at 5. Long hours to earn a handful of pesos.

"What else can I do?" he asks.

From late morning to late afternoon, Martinez family members dish out tortillas filled with rice, beans, chicken cutlets and hard-boiled eggs from steaming metal pots. They serve a steady clientele of people who work in the neighborhood; only rarely do the permanent residents partake.

"We get a little bit of everything as customers," he said. "There are office employees and construction workers. And a lot of bodyguards."

Some of the bodyguards eat at the Martinez food stand while their charges dine a block away at the Cafe O, known for its power breakfasts and Ladies Who Lunch.

Carlos Slim, the telecommunications tycoon ranked by Forbes as the world's richest man, has a house here in Lomas — at least the house he most often shows journalists. And Diego Fernandez de Cevallos, the powerbroker and kingmaker notoriously kidnapped last year, returned to his mansion on a Lomas corner after his release.

A half block from Martinez, Roberto Santana Santos, 60, is another neighborhood fixture. He repairs bicycles, having inherited the storefront business from his father, who started it 75 years ago. At the beginning, they repaired bikes for the milkman and the newspaper boy and all the other deliverymen who conducted their business on bicycles. But their operation evolved, and today it's the rich who bring their souped-up mountain bikes and other fancy rides to Santana for realignments, wheel adjustments and other repairs.

Slight and silver-haired, Santana has become something of a neighborhood historian. He remembers when parts of Lomas were fields and parkland, where the mansions now stand.

Santana puts in 12-hour days, before riding home five miles away, on his bike. Business is brisk, especially on Saturdays. Residents stop by, driving up in their SUVs, to pick up or leave off a bike. They exchange friendly greetings with Santana. Sometimes, they stop in for a soft drink, he says.

Out of Lomas, the intersection changes. "If they see me somewhere else, in a restaurant or at a theater," he said, "they pretend they don't know me."

wilkinson@latimes.com

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